We have work. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on 2021 suicides quantify what many of us have already observed: suicide deaths in the United States have increased after a brief decline. The increase is most marked among young men aged 15 to 24, for whom the suicide rate was twice (+8%) that of all Americans (+4%). Young women were also affected; suicide was the second leading cause of death for all Americans, up from 10 to 34 last year.
All of us in society – especially government, community, corporate and education leaders – need to recognize the many potential causes of distress and respond thoughtfully. Congress in particular has an opportunity to accomplish something by passing legislation that will help address this crisis with proven strategies. These are needed because the well-meaning suggestions advanced recently in popular media for young people seeking relief from their anxiety and depression miss the point. Remedies such as mindfulness and better self-care – including sleep and exercise, which are helpful in maintaining good health – will not on their own sufficiently address the issues causing mental distress.
In considering our path to solutions, we must first recognize that societal trends, driven by the pandemic and that preceded it, have diminished the social supports young people have for healthy emotional development. Loneliness is in place. The dating is down; time spent with friends and family in real life is down; partnership and marriage are delayed. Others are now working remotely; despite its benefits, it still reduces time spent facing others. Young people need community, and while that alone is not the way out of the suicide crisis, we won’t get out of it without helping them access a sense of belonging, purpose and the resilience that comes from strong social connections.
The magnitude of the problem lends credence to the idea that we are not just facing a mental health crisis, but rather significant social and political crises and rapid societal changes that have had clear impacts on mental health. When we look at what young people have faced in recent years – pandemic, war, financial insecurity, school shootings, climate change, political and social conflict and racially, ethically and gender-based violence – there is no no wonder Gen Z is more stressed than older generations on what is reported in the news. Their upset, worry, and anxiety are normal human responses to these competing threats; we must be careful not to pathologize them into diseases or waste the young by suggesting that they simply need better coping skills.
Providing young people with a pathway to directly confront the causes of their distress is essential, and this starts with developing a sense of common purpose. Many young people want take meaningful action against the violence, environmental breakdown and intolerance at the root of their anxieties and depression, but often do not know where to start and may wonder if they will be able to make a difference.
But by participating in groups acting for positive change, young people can learn about political processes and, through advocacy, change events. Older people can and should collaborate in these efforts, sharing their experience and necessary perspective with young people. This has the effect of reducing feelings of helplessness and the deep resignation that accompanies them. Provide a registry that directs young people to organizations like NextVoicethat connects them with their peers and other generations interested in solving common social problems, will also be critical.
Connecting young people with others is also a helpful way to build community, a powerful antidote to overwhelming societal trends. By fostering a sense of belonging in young people and inviting them to be part of a larger, mutually supportive group, we are taking essential steps to help them build a foundation of wellness and positivity. Developing a sense of community and belonging is increasingly advised for teenagers. He is proven to have lifelong sanity advantagesincluding a decrease in the incidence of high-risk behaviors.
The clear benefits of community underscore the need for infrastructure that builds resilience to help prevent suicide. In response to natural disasters, we created FEMA and the Red Cross. In the wake of the pandemic, we have put in place funds for rent relief, suspension of student loan payments, small business stimulus grants and payroll protection plan. In 2020, Congress appointed “988” the dialing code for those facing immediate mental health crises, But we must go further. Our response to the suicide crisis must ensure basic needs are met, such as affordable housing, higher minimum wages, and social safety net programs.
As we approach midterm, our response should be a priority for all voters and policy makers. Those concerned about this crisis should call on this Congress to support national mental health prioritization and planning by finalizing legislation based on HR 5407 sponsored by Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) and Rep. Fred Keller (R-Pa .) and its companion measure, S. 4970 sponsored by Sens. Richard Blumenthal and (D-Conn.) Tim Scott (RS.C.) by the end of the year. This law would ensure that colleges and universities use evidence-based policies to implement comprehensive suicide prevention programs. It is very necessary; it can take young people months to find a therapist for long-term support. We need to seriously explore these gaps in care and come up with new ideas; why not finally create a national program that creates peer and paraprofessional workforces that provide ongoing support for the mental health issues facing young people?
Community building must be central to this effort. It’s time for partnerships between public health authorities, nonprofits, educators and families that help young people build strong social connections that help them through this deepening crisis. We must recognize that our young people have faced seemingly insurmountable problems over the past few years with no path to solutions. Now is the time to give them the tools to build community, not only to take control of their future, but also to see and believe that there is indeed a hopeful future.
A public health leader focused on protecting the emotional health of young people and preventing suicide in adolescents and young adults, John MacPhee is the CEO of The Jed Foundation.